Name Dropper, Chapter 8
By Peter Wills……..
As you will have gathered the vast majority of my encounters with the ‘rich and famous’ have been because of circumstances related to my career path and for ease of recording them they are pretty much in chronological order.
Therefore I have described the following as ‘casual encounters’ mainly because they occurred at in-between times or do not specifically fit into a designated previous chapter.
I have always been a lover of animals and often regret that either I wasn’t clever enough in my sciences or the opportunities never arose for me to pursue a career that brought me into greater contact with animals. I would have loved to have been another David Attenborough or Steve Irwin.
However, I was delighted when with my job at Trusthouse Forte Leisure, I was to be responsible for the marketing of the Dolphinarium at Woburn Safari Park, which meant regular visits to see the man in charge there, the well-known aquatic expert and TV broadcaster Terry Nutkins, who unfortunately died well ahead of his time, in 2012. Terry was a lovely man, endeared by animals and public alike, especially the children. And his fame spread nationwide when he presented “Animal Magic” and “The Really Wild Show” for BBC Television.
At the Dolphinarium, there was a special friend of mine called “Jingles”. She was a sea lion who thought she was a dolphin and used to swim and do tricks with them as part of the daily performances. Whenever I entered the building and called her name, she would swim up out of the water onto the side of the pool and clap her flippers and ‘squawk’ her welcome. Terry also had a baby pup sea lion called California which he hand-reared in his bath at home and I was privileged to be taken by Terry to his home to visit the pup.
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Still on the subject of animals, I was also fortunate to have regular contact with the world famous Circus Ringmaster, Norman Barratt MBE who spent 25 years as resident ringmaster at Blackpool Tower Circus. Having joined his parents’ circus at the age of 12, Norman knew everyone in the circus world, and that included the animals! Sadly, I believe in some ways, animals are no longer part of the circus scene but I remember Norman taking me under the Tower to the animal quarters, to meet the fabulous chimpanzees that he was presenting in the show.
They were adorable creatures who just loved to be cuddled and interacted with; more like affectionate inquisitive children and I remember them being totally fascinated with my wife’s hooped earrings which she had to remove before the chimps pulled them out with her ears still attached!
* * * *
Some people have creatures at the bottom of their gardens; some have fairies and some have gnomes!
Garden gnomes originated in the late eighteenth century and although the originator of the first gnome is hotly contested, it is believed that the pottery firm of Baehr and Mareschjo Dresden, Germany, produced the first ceramic gnomes. They were usually figures of dwarf men with pointy hats and beards and were based on local myths as a way for people to enjoy the stories of the gnomes’ willingness to help in the garden at night.
The garden gnome quickly spread across Europe and into England and wherever gardening was a serious hobby, gnome statues, in all their varieties and poses, became a must have accessory to many well tended home gardens. And, rather surprisingly, they are just as popular today with many becoming collectors pieces.
I tell you this, only because it is relevant to the next item of my story.
As a freelance marketing consultant, I was contracted by a very well known Gardening Centre Company in Lancashire to help in promoting their new range of plants through their own outlets and those to whom they supplied on a wholesale basis.
As part of our research we questioned customers on their plant preferences and the problems they encountered when making their choices. Most people liked gardening and they liked to see the end results of a beautiful garden, but the questions they most often asked of garden centre staff, was the suitability of which plants for differing soil conditions and different locations in their gardens. Whilst the garden centre staff were always encouraged to be as helpful as possible, a huge amount of their time was being taken up answering the same questions over and over again.
For the labels, I came up with the idea of characterising them with gnome labels; “Squelchy”, “Shady”, “Windy” “Digger” (for heavy soil) and about 10 more. All were colourful cartoon gnome characters designed to attract the customers’ attention.
For aficionados of “Coronation Street”, probably the longest running soap-drama in the history of British television, you will probably remember the characters of Derek and Mavis Wilton. There was a long running storyline regarding their gnomes and subsequent disappearances of same, ‘stolen’ as pranks and supposedly sent off around the world on their travels. Derek was passionate about his gnomes, so who better to get to help launch our new garden gnome plants. I contacted actor Peter Baldwin who played Derek and organised a publicity campaign with him with press ads and personal appearances at several garden centres in the North West.
Suffice to say the campaign was a great success and thanks go to Peter (and the gnomes) for making gardening a little easier.
* * * *
And it is to Coronation Street, where I next lead you along the cobbles.
I have always been a bit of a thespian at heart (as you will see in the next chapter) and through a business acquaintance was encouraged to join a Liverpool agency that supplies ‘extras’ for television and films. As you will probably know, ‘extras’ usually have walk-on parts and don’t normally have to say anything. That was great for me because I invariably have problems learning lines.
Over the next couple of years I made several appearances on “The Street”. Sometimes as a passerby, sometimes in a restaurant, sometimes in the Rovers and sometimes out on location, including sequences in Blackpool.
As minions, we were forbidden to talk to the stars unless, of course, they spoke to us first. And of course, sometimes they did. I had various conversations with Johnny Briggs (Mike Baldwin), Barbara Knox (Rita Sullivan), Brian Jones (Les Battersby), William Roache (Ken Barlow), Charles Lawson (Jim McDonald), Beverley Callard (Liz McDonald), Julie Goodyear (Bet Lynch), Bill Tarmey (Jack Duckworth – who sadly passed away in 2012), the wonderful John Savident (Fred Elliott) – we had endless conversations staring out to sea leaning against the railings on Blackpool promenade and I was smuggled into the Green Room (where the stars congregate), to renew my acquaintance with Sue Nicholls (Audrey Roberts). You will recall I knew and worked with Sue many years previously.
When Sue saw me she came rushing over, threw her arms around my neck and exclaimed, “Hello Darling; what are you doing here?” I felt a few people were looking down their noses at me as if to say what’s a nobody doing in our Green Room! I didn’t care, I’ll talk to anyone!
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Extra work also allowed me to work with and meet several other well known actors. I spent several days working in Liverpool on the film “Digital Murder”, set in New York and starring Antonio Banderas. Unfortunately it was too blood-thirsty for the British Board of Censors and was never given a certificate for showing in Britain. However a friend and fellow extra managed to get a video copy dubbed in Spanish so I did at least get to see the scenes I was in.
Then came the ITV series “Blue Murder” which ran through five series from 2003 to 2009. It starred Caroline Quentin, as DCI Janine Lewis; Ian Kelsey as DI Richard Mayne and Nicholas Murchie as DS Tony Shap.. We filmed it in Manchester and, as is always the case with film and TV productions, there is a lot of hanging about when nothing much seems to be happening – especially for the “extras”. So there I was, having a quick cigarette, one of many, when one of the production assistants called a couple of us over and said he wanted us to stand by a doorway having a cigarette and when one of the detectives comes out, we should ‘pretend’ to be having a conversation with him. I say ‘pretend’ because extras were not supposed to speak!
We did a couple of rehearsal takes and I said aloud, words to the effect of. “It’s a bit bloody much when we have to come outside to have a fag!” And the detective, Richard Mayne, replied, as he pinched one of my cigarettes, Too right, who came up with this stupid law?”
We didn’t know the sound was on, but the director was obviously impressed that when it came to the actual take, he said to keep the dialogue in. I recall I got an extra £10 for saying those few words – and I wasn’t a member of EQUITY ! They also paid me a further £10 for using my car in another sequence. Caroline Quentin had to get out of the driver’s seat and retrieve her brief case from the boot. The boot got some hammering that day as they must have rehearsed and shot it about 20 times!
Then, it was back to Liverpool for the shooting of a small sequence for the TV series, “Titanic, Blood and Steel”. Most of the filming was done in Belfast but for some reason they moved to Liverpool for a couple of scenes and although I had very little to do I featured in one small scene. Dressed as a dock worker, I had to touch my forelock to Billy Carter who played Thomas Andrews and Kevin Zegars who played the young English metallurgist, Mark Muir, as they were walking through the dockyard gates.
Coincidently, much stronger connections with Titanic were to follow, but on a personal basis this time. For several years, I was a member of a semi-pro theatre group who specialised in after-dinner’ theatre and in particular, Murder Mystery Events. Our most requested event was “Murder On The Titanic” with myself playing the role of Captain Edward Smith.
I was later to have a co-starring role in “Titanic The Musical” as First Officer William Murdock, performed by a semi-professional operatic group, at the fantastic Grand Theatre in Blackpool.
* * * *
I have never been a golfer and although I occasionally enjoy watching the professional tournaments on television, I have never had the inclination or the financial resources to take it up as a hobby.
However, there is a huge worldwide population who die for the game and, within reason, will travel anywhere for the experience of playing on a new course.
At the time, I was responsible for the marketing of a chain of independently owned hotels with locations throughout Britain, many of which were located on, adjacent to or within easy reach of a number of celebrated courses. I had also just been on a business trip to Holland where the game was in its embryo stages and with only one or two courses available to play on, golfers were very keen to come to Britain to play the famous courses they had seen on television; St. Andrews, The Belfry, Royal Birkdale, Turnberry, Royal Lytham Saint Annes, Wentworth to name a few.
I set about putting together Golfing Holiday packages to include accommodation and rounds of golf and to arrange the latter I was referred to Alex Hay, managing director of Woburn Golf Club. Alex, originally a Scottish professional golfer and instructor is probably best remembered for his commentating partnership with Peter Alliss on BBC coverage of the sport, where their banter, often displaying humour or wit, became regarded by many as “The Voice of Golf”. He was also a Ryder Cup referee.
So, who better to organise the golfing aspect of the packages and in the interests of getting good publicity photos, take me out onto the Woburn course for a quick bit of tuition.
Boy was I humiliated. “You’re not standing right laddie”, said Alex. “You’ve got to address the ball”, said he. “Now take a swing. Och! you’re never going to hit the ball with that club!”
“Why” says I.
“Because you’re obviously left handed and that’s a right handed club,” said Alex.
I was a left-handed batsman at cricket and they don’t have left-handed bats so how was I, a real novice, supposed to know any difference with golf.
A runner was quickly despatched to the club house to get me the appropriate club and the photo-call went ahead as planned.
But, what a charming man and it was a pleasure and an honour to have met him.
* * * *
It seems appropriate to follow on with another Scottish connection only by the fact that I was in Edinburgh to promote a touring Ice Show at the Kings Theatre in Leven Street.
The theatre management had invited me to see the current show at the theatre which was something close to my heart. An evening of Jazz with George Melly and John Chilton’s Feetwarmers and the Humphrey Littleton Band.
Walking up towards the theatre from my hotel in what appeared to be a largely deserted street, I was aware of this larger than life sized character walking up and down the pavement staring vaguely into every shop window he passed.
As I came closer the prospect of being accosted by an Edinburgh villain disappeared when I saw that the man was wearing a baggy and garish pin-stripe suit and a trilby hat that was slightly too small for his head. Recognising him instantly I said “Good Evening” to which he replied, “Are you coming to the show?”. He then went on to explain that his little meandering was his way of keeping an eye on who was going into the theatre so that he could get a feel for the audience before going on stage.
After the show, I met up with George and Humph in the bar and talked about my days with the NME (New Musical Express – as mentioned in a previous chapter), and the personalities and artistes involved with the 100 Oxford Street and Ronnie Scott’s clubs in London).
Still on a jazz theme, but about 10 years later, I was to promote an evening of jazz on the new promenade at Cleveleys in Lancashire, about 7 miles up the coast from Blackpool.
This was part of the festival day celebrations and for the top of the bill, I booked Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen. Even for non-jazz enthusiasts, Kenny is a legend. His landmark recordings of the 1960’s such as ‘Midnight in Moscow’ and his adaptation of Disney’s classic, ’I’m the King of the Jungle’, catapulted him to worldwide fame.
At 78 years of age he was still blowing strong and now at 82 years of age, he is still touring the country playing venues and events of all sizes endearing audiences old and new with his traditional jazz style.
Our outdoor venue was threatened by rain that evening but in the tent dressing room adjacent to the stage Kenny and the band munched on their sandwiches, scoffed their beer and Kenny vowed to go on stage, whatever the weather. Fortunately it stayed dry until halfway through their second encore. What a trouper!
* * * *
Finally, we come to two comedians of a very different genre.
Dave Allen was an Irish comedian, very popular with television audiences and dubbed Britain’s most controversial comedian of his time, regularly provoking conservative indignation at his frequent highlighting of political hypocrisy and his disregard for religious authority.
Allen’s act was typified by a relaxed, rueful and intimate style; he would sit on a high bar stool facing his audience, smoking and occasionally sipping from a glass of what he always allowed people to assume was whisky, but in fact was merely ginger ale with ice.
It was in this intimate way that he entertained an invited audience to a private audience of about 200, at a nightclub in Sutton Coldfield, just outside Birmingham.
You may recall that I had previously met Dave at a Water Rats concert in Wolverhampton and after his show, I reminded him of the occasion and he admitted that on that night he had never, well before his days on television, dreamt that his career would take off to the level it did.
“Cheerful” Charlie Chester was a doyen of comedy loved by British audiences for his shows on radio and TV from the 1940’s right through to the 1990’s. In the late sixties he presented a weekly radio show on a Sunday, which was transmitted from the BBC’s Birmingham studios. He opened the programme each week with the introduction “With a box full of records and a bag full of post, it’s radio soapbox and Charlie your host.”
Some weeks, after his show, Charlie would stay in the Midlands instead of returning to London and meet up with his many friends in the area. Staying in one of the hotels I was working at, my very pregnant wife and I became very good friends with him, so much so, that he was invited and accepted to be god-father to my daughter Rachel.
Unfortunately it never materialised as he was booked to do a television comedy show in America just one week before the Christening and was therefore not going to be in the country. Sadly we didn’t meet up again but we sent him a photograph of the god daughter he almost had.
* * * *
And so, my 50 years of life on the celebrity fringes is almost at an end. But, I’m not dead yet, and who knows who I might meet in the future? I might even be a celebrity myself and if you don’t feel too bored already, you might like to continue and read the final chapter!
There’s a postscript to this chapter that has only just come to light.
Something I had completely forgotten about until I was clearing out my mother’s house as, having reached the grand old age of 105, she was forced to take up accommodation in a residential care home.
She was a hoarder, my mother. Nothing ever went to waste or was used if it didn’t need to be. Not only did I discover brand new bed-linen that had been given to her as a wedding present over 70 years previously and never taken out of the wrapping paper and brand new sets of saucepans, never taken out of their boxes, despite the fact that her old pans were missing handles and lid-knobs and
some had even been repaired, as they did in the old days, with a washer and rivet through the bottom, where a hole had appeared through constant use.
There was paper everywhere. No piece with even the smallest space available for writing on was wasted. I think every letter she had ever received was there and in many cases, still in the original envelope in which it was received. And so, I found my letters home; sent as a young teenager working away from home, as I described in an earlier chapter.
From a nostalgic point of view, I took the time to read those letters that I wrote and so discovered more references to meetings with celebrities.
Even then I was not phased or it would appear over-awed by the prospect of mixing with the famous.
I was at the Dorchester Hotel in London (very posh) for the Daily Sketch, “Queen of the Barmaids” ball because the barmaid from my local pub in Sheerness (where I was a junior reporter), had reached the final of the competition to find the best barmaid in Britain. It was a dress affair and I had to have an evening suit and I see from my letter home that I managed to get one from the nearly new shop for the princely sum of £3.00 and it fitted perfectly. But I digress!
My letter home simply says that I had a great time, “managed to do quite a bit of dancing and as well as dancing with all the ladies who had travelled up from Sheerness, I had a dance with both June Laverick and Anne Shelton”, who happened to be two of the judges.
No further reference was made to the occasion so, although I must have been impressed enough to have mentioned it, I appeared blasé to the meeting!
On another occasion, I record that I had gone up to London to stay with some friends of mine who I had known from my youthful days working as a holiday relief reporter on the Express and Star in Wolverhampton.
I write verbatim from my letter: “John woke we up fairly early in the morning, and while Mary was busy getting the dinner, we went out to Hampstead Heath and evidently as that is somewhere near where Billy Wright and Joy Beverley live, John had previously arranged with him, that we should have a morning’s golf together. But that was not all …
Waiting at the golf house was Jimmy Edwards, another friend that John had made since he had been in London. The four of us then went on to the green. But I faired pretty badly. Needless to say we all had a good time. Jimmy Edwards jokes and laughs in person, just as he does on stage and oh! that handle-bar moustache! Billy said it was good to see me again!” And that was that – just like water off a duck’s back!
Unfortunately I didn’t date any of these letters home. Perhaps there wasn’t a need then as the post always seemed to arrive the following day after posting and if you posted it early enough (before 8am) in London, it would sometimes arrive in Wolverhampton by the second post, the same day! So most of my letters just had the day of the week on them, such as this one which reads ‘Wednesday evening’.
It couldn’t have been very long after I had started working at Decca Records (also referred to earlier). I wrote:
“The job is very interesting and exciting and every bit as much as I expected it to be. In fact I have come into contact with quite a number of well-known stars and even more lesser known stars already.
“Of the better known ones …. I had to go to Mantovani’s private flat in St. John’s Wood to arrange the choosing of a cover picture for his next LP (long playing record), the day before he got married.
“I was talking to Tommy Steele at his agent’s office and yesterday I had to go and see Billy Cotton (also in St. John’s Wood), discussing the material which I shall be compiling for his next LP.
“And I have met about a dozen rock stars (or should that be ‘pop’) including Adam Faith. I guess that’s the circle I will be moving in from now on!”
So matter of fact, but I thought worthy of including in this epic!
Look out for the next part of my story – “I’m A Celebrity – Throw Me Out of Here” coming very soon.
With thanks to all the celebrities and personalities for their pure existence, without whom this book would not have been possible.
And with special thanks to all of those who took the time and trouble to act as ordinary people, happy to meet with ‘their public’ and discuss the facts of everyday life.
Also with sincere apologies to anyone I have left out. It’s either because I have forgotten you or the memory of you wasn’t worth recalling